Much of Tobacco's Past Has Gone Up in Smoke
Jimmie Ross remembers his first try at a tobacco product. It was a cigar, and it was his last smoke.
"I couldn't get the dern thing lit," he says.
Ross may not smoke, but he has raised tobacco most of his life. For years, he was Moore County's largest tobacco grower. At one time he was among almost 200 farmers growing tobacco here, but the number is down to an estimated 20 today.
"I enjoy growing tobacco," he says. "It's a challenge."
Nevertheless, the Ross family raises tobacco on about 200 acres, down from the 300 acres of yesteryear. The Rosses live on Joel Road near Carthage.
As recently as 1996, Moore County warehouse operators sold as much as $33.4 million in flue-cured tobacco, the "golden leaf" providing the desirable flavor and blend for cigarettes. Those warehouses sold more than 18 million pounds of tobacco at an average of $185.34 a pound that year.
That was an unusual year, because Hurricane Fran skipped Moore County tobacco fields, giving local growers an advantage over other parts of North Carolina.
But in more normal years, the warehouses could be expected to move 11 million to 12 million pounds for $18 million or more.
Many other tobacco growers in Moore County are nonsmokers as well. They never acquired the habit or quit because of health reasons. These farmers raise tobacco because it grows well in the soil here, because they have invested heavily in equipment, and because it remains a good money crop despite setbacks.
However, most say they do not expect their children to follow in their footsteps.
John Blue, who farms the historic River Daniel Blue farm in the Eureka community, is the sixth generation to farm the land and may be the fourth generation to raise tobacco there. His young son wants to continue the family's farming tradition, but it's unlikely his emphasis will be on tobacco.
"I don't see a long-term future in tobacco," says Blue. "I have a young son who wants to continue on the farm, but there's too much work for what we get out of it."
Blue says the family farm continues to make a profit from tobacco, but a reason for that profit is the absence of heavy debt for expensive specialized equipment used for harvesting and curing. Most farmers who invested heavily in such equipment a few years ago are still paying off their debt, even as the market for tobacco closes down.
Increasingly the Blue farm is diversifying and turning to fruits and vegetables and other agricultural endeavors. This is not a daunting prospect for the Blues, who have successfully shifted crops through the generations. Not too many decades ago, they switched from cotton to tobacco.
Billy Carter, who farms in Eagle Springs, says North Carolina's new law prohibiting smoking in most public places is one of the most restrictive in the nation. Nevertheless, he says passage of such a law was inevitable.
"Tobacco is an economic engine in this state. It's not as obvious as it has been, but it's still important to the economy of North Carolina," Carter says.
Taylor Williams, a horticulture specialist, predicts that tobacco growing may retreat even further as the present generation of farmers retires. Even younger farmers, such as Blue and Carter, are advising their children to pursue diversification.
As an agriculture agent with the Moore County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, Williams has worked to encourage farmers to try new products and to become more pro-active in marketing their crops.
In the eyes of many, the tobacco industry and government bureaucracy created an atmosphere in which many growers feel betrayed.
In one example, farmers in the 1990s were urged to convert their curing barns to different equipment designed to lessen the adverse health effect of nicotine in leaf. Although some grants were available, the cost of conversion was steep, and farmers are still paying off the debt on equipment they are using less and less.
"It seems like it never ends," Williams says.
Williams says the tobacco situation is not really unique in the American market. A good comparison is the textile industry, once a mainstay of the Southern economy and now rapidly disappearing from the scene as companies move operations to countries where wages are lower. Similarly, companies are buying cotton from other countries, where the crop grows just as well and wages are lower.
Companies have found that tobacco grows well in such diverse places as Brazil, Africa and Asia. North Carolina no longer has a monopoly on flue-cured tobacco.
Asked about research into production of a healthier tobacco or of another use for tobacco, Williams sees little or no change.
"There is no healthy tobacco," the agent admits.
Trying Other Crops
Although he doesn't blame growers for continuing to raise tobacco, Wllliams is directing attention to vegetables and fruits and encouraging farmers to become more active in marketing.
"There's a huge, strong demand for edible food crops. This is not a production issue. It's a marketing issue," Williams says. "The market is telling you now, if you raise vegetables, you can sell them and if you raise ornamentals, you can sell them."
In 2009, Moore County had eight strawberry growers who sold their produce at roadside stands and farmers' markets, and most were successful. The county now boasts five farmers markets, whereas there was only one just a few years ago.
The public loves strawberries, a beautiful fruit that almost sells itself, but a community can have too many growers. The market was good this year, but farmers must diversify further. After all, a farmer cannot survive on strawberries alone.
Williams says it's possible to gross as much as $20,000 an acre on strawberries in a successful year, but -- and it's a big but -- if you fail, you have lost $15,000. Farming is costly.
"It's a heckuva gamble," Williams says.
Many other crops can be sold on contract, such as carrots, pickling peppers and melons. As with poultry and tobacco, farmers are at the mercy of the companies with whom they hold contracts, as well as the eternal uncertainty of the weather.
"Nowadays you can't be a farmer and not take some responsibility for the market," Williams says.
All three farmers interviewed for this article are already raising other crops, gradually converting former tobacco acreage into land cultivated for vegetables, soybeans, corn and small grains. Others have already turned to such things as poultry, truck crops, soybeans and grains.
Ross raises soybeans on 1,500 acres, along with some wheat. Carter raises strawberries and other fruits and vegetables.
Blue may be the most widely diversified. This is the second year that his family has operated a roadside stand, the Highlander Farms, on N.C. 22 near Carthage, for the sale of strawberries and other fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition to soybeans, he raises watermelons, squash, pumpkins and specialty melons. He continues to raise shiitake mushrooms as an experimental crop.
'Kind of Sad'
Tobacco is not exactly disappearing from Moore County, but it's increasingly difficult to account for its presence. With the demise of government acreage and quota limits, growers are no longer required to report the number of acres planted to any USDA agency.
Karen Bennett, a staff member in the Farm Service Agency in Moore County, says many growers continue to report acreage, but this is not a requirement. They do it more out of habit when they come into the FSA office to report acreage of other crops for certification purposes. Farmers can still qualify for subsidies on specified crops, such as corn, small grains, soybeans and cotton, and also for disaster assistance in certain circumstances.
At one time the FSA, an agency of the USDA, hired specialists to measure tobacco crop acreages to determine compliance with allotments. It's no longer required.
Economic aspects of the tobacco picture bother farmers, but the loss of family tradition hurts deeply.
Tobacco farming is in Jimmie Ross' blood. His father raised tobacco and Ross took over the farm when his father became disabled after a stroke. Ross was still in his teens at the time, and he has raised tobacco ever since. He is now 72.
Blue operates his family's Centenary farm, land cultivated by the first Blues to inhabit that section of Moore County almost 150 years ago. He too possesses instinctive knowledge of tobacco production.
"It's kind of sad," he says.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at 693-2479 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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